Meet the actress who’s firing up the A-list

You Magazine
Published: November 21, 2011

Seemingly from nowhere, actress Jessica Chastain has become this year’s biggest movie star – with Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Al Pacino just some of her leading men. As the awards buzz around her builds, she tells Martyn Palmer why her latest film has its finger on the collective pulse (and why she’s bemused by the British reaction to her hair!)

Earlier this year, Jessica Chastain had a lavish party thrown in her honour to mark her arrival as an A-list Hollywood star. It was called the Cannes Film Festival. This supremely gifted young Californian waltzed up the red carpet looking fabulous in a strapless canary yellow Zac Posen ballgown and took a bow. You could almost see the old guard standing to one side to make room for the new girl in town.

‘I had Brad Pitt holding one hand and Sean Penn holding the other,’ she smiles. ‘It was a little surreal. It was my first time in Cannes and like a baptism of fire – nerve-racking but also fun and exciting, and I’ll never forget it.’

At the time, many movie-goers had only a vague idea of who she was. Now Jessica is a household name in the States and the rest of the world is quickly catching up. Cannes was like a spectacular graduation party and Ms Chastain was the belle of the ball.

‘I was with my best friend and we went to a fabulous party and stayed until 5.30 in the morning,’ she says. ‘Then I had to be up at 8am for a photo call and you think, “How long can I last?” But I wasn’t tired at all; I guess the adrenalin kept me going.’

At Cannes Jessica was promoting The Tree of Life, an ambitious epic about the meaning of life co-starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, as well as Take Shelter, an excellent psychological thriller in which she plays the wife of a man tormented by apocalyptic visions. Both films won coveted prizes in different sections (the Palme d’Or for best picture for The Tree of Life and Critics Week Grand Prize for Take Shelter) – and don’t be surprised if, come Oscar time early next year, Ms Chastain herself grabs a nomination or two.

But she is not quite the overnight sensation that she seems. Her films have been backing up like buses and now they’re all arriving with a few weeks of each other. The Tree of Life was quickly followed by The Debt, a spy drama with Helen Mirren released here in September, and hot on its heels came The Help, a tear-jerker set in America’s racially segregated Deep South in the 1960s. Now there’s Take Shelter and in January we’ll see her in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. She’s also been tipped to play Princess Diana in the forthcoming Caught in Flight, the first major movie to look at her love life and tragic death.

‘It’s made me a little nervous, to be honest,’ she said when we met in Cannes back in May, before any of the above had been released to the general public. ‘I’ve made 11 films in four years and I can’t help wondering how different my life is going to be when six of them come out at the end of the year.

‘But my family and friends are very supportive and they are helping me embrace the unknown, which is the only thing I can do. My mum used to joke, “What exactly are you doing in Los Angeles? Because you say you’re in all this stuff but we never see it…”’

By the time I catch up with her again at the Toronto International Film Festival in September
to talk about Take Shelter, her parents have had proof, if they really needed it, of what she’s been up to – they’ve watched with pride as The Help shot to number one at the US box office and The Debt made its UK debut at number five. ‘Oh my gosh, it’s been amazing,’ she says. ‘This year has been the best, but I’m old enough to know that this business ebbs and flows and if this all goes away, that’s OK, because hopefully I’ll have other moments.’

‘Mum used to joke, “What exactly are you doing in Los Angeles? Because you say you’re in all this stuff but we never see it…”’

It’s true, at 30 she’s been around long enough to know that fame can be a fickle game. But make no mistake, Jessica is now established as one of the best actresses of her generation. She’s bright, funny and you believe her when she says that the last thing she wants is for all the fuss to change her. ‘The thing I love most about this business is connecting to other people. And so the idea that people would put me on some kind of pedestal worries me. I’ve worked with a lot of great actors now and sometimes people are nervous to talk to them, and I don’t want that kind of anxiety around me. I just want to be normal, because if someone starts to treat me in that way it’s going to make me crazy. And I do not want to be a crazy actress.’

Endearingly, she admits that she still gets a little starstruck herself. ‘I do! Oh my God, of course. When you meet someone like Helen Mirren or Brad Pitt or Al Pacino, I mean, these people are huge stars and actors that I’ve admired all my life.

‘And, you know, it’s great for my family, too. I remember my grandma had her picture taken with Al at the Venice Film Festival premiere for Wilde Salomé [expected to be released in the UK next year], which she had framed and keeps on her bedside table! That’s so sweet – I love it.’

Jessica’s busy lifestyle takes her all over the world and lately she’s rarely had time to get home. Luckily, she has a knack of bonding with her ‘work family’ on set. ‘For me, it’s important that I get
along with the people I work with. I’m not the kind of person who will befriend you on set, become very close and then, once the movie is over, just disappear out of your life.

‘To me those friendships are real. Take Mike Shannon [her co-star in Take Shelter] – he’s a lovely guy and I adore him. We’ve stayed in touch since we finished filming. And it’s the same with everyone that I’ve got a strong bond with. I work at maintaining those friendships.’

In Take Shelter she plays Samantha LaForche, a young wife and mother whose husband Curtis (Shannon) begins to experience apocalyptic nightmares warning him of an impending devastating storm. As Curtis takes out a loan the family can ill afford to build a storm shelter, an increasingly exasperated Samantha fears that he is cracking up, especially as there’s a history of mental illness on his side of the family.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter is gripping, beautifully acted and cleverly plays into the fears that families all over the world, living through troubled economic times, can identify with. ‘Jeff has his finger on the collective anxiety with Take Shelter,’ says Jessica, ‘because everyone is feeling the same in these difficult economic times. I know people who have lost their jobs, I have friends who have graduated from college and can’t find work, and there’s this sense that if you take your eye off the ball for a minute you can lose everything.

‘That anxiety is the subtext of the film, because Samantha is looking at her husband and she’s worried about him, but also thinking, “What’s wrong with you?” People will relate to the story because it’s so human. It’s a very real portrayal of a couple going through a crisis.’

There’s one sequence where Samantha slaps her husband across the face and that was particularly hard to do, she says. ‘I don’t like violence but I knew it was important for the film. I talked to the director and he said it had to be real, I had to slap Mike. So I said, “Please, promise me that you will only make me do it three times.” And so we did it and I hit Mike so hard. It was like “Whack!” And afterwards I went up to him and said, “Are you OK? I’m so sorry.” That was a difficult scene for me.’

Jessica knew she wanted to act when she was very young. ‘My grandma took me to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when I was five. I remember there was a little girl on stage and I thought, “Wow, that’s a great job, I’d love to do that.” All through high school I was, like, “I’m going to be an actor.” I acted at school and I won little trophies, such as the District Middle School Dance Competition. It’s all I ever wanted to do.’

She was born Jessica Howard (Chastain is her mother’s maiden name), one of five children who grew up in a small town in northern California where her mother Geri runs a vegan restaurant and her father Michael is a fireman.

At 18, she won a place at the prestigious Juilliard school of dance, drama and music in New York (alumni include Kevin Spacey, William Hurt and Robin Williams). And she credits a demanding four years there with preparing her for life as an actress. ‘I was the first in my family to go to college and Mum and Dad were so proud,’ she says. ‘That school gave me discipline and I spent four difficult years there. It’s the hardest thing. Harder than any film – there are long hours and you go through a lot emotionally. It’s tough love and if you walk out at the end of it and think, “I loved it” – and I did – then you’ll be fine.’

After college, she earned her professional spurs by appearing on stage and in TV shows, with a semi-regular slot as an assistant district attorney on Law & Order: Trial By Jury and guest appearances on ER, Veronica Mars and The Evidence. While she wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, she was working and steadily building a career. Eventually, she picked up a couple of film roles, notably playing the lead in Jolene as an abused teenager trying to make her way in the world.

Her career changed dramatically when Terrence Malick, one of the most admired American directors working today thanks to films such as Badlands and The Thin Red Line, cast her to star in The Tree of Life, playing Brad Pitt’s wife. The reclusive Malick doesn’t give interviews and his films are regarded as major events, often released years apart. Once filming has finished, he takes his time editing them before they are released. And that was the case with The Tree of Life, which was filmed in 2008 but not released until this year.

In Hollywood’s eyes, being selected for a Malick film is a gold seal of approval, and other directors duly took note. ‘The Tree of Life was a great experience for me,’ she says. ‘And really, Terry’s not reclusive, he’s just reclusive as far as the press is concerned. He’s a lovely guy and very generous.

‘And the wonderful thing about working with Sean and Brad is that they help you forget that
they are Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, because for them, the important thing is the work, the story
and making the relationships work within the story. Honestly, there were no diva-like moments from anyone.’

‘I’ve worked with a lot of great actors now and sometimes people are nervous to talk to them, and I don’t want that kind of anxiety around me. I just want to be normal, because if someone starts to treat me in that way it’s going to make me crazy’

Which doesn’t mean Jessica can’t appreciate the perks of being a star. She loves clothes –
when we met in Cannes she wore a short grey Stella McCartney dress with skyscraper heels – and makes the most of her moments in the spotlight. ‘I love fashion, and being able to go to film festivals and premieres is a really exciting part of the business. I loved the dress that Zac Posen made for me for the Cannes red carpet. I said that I wanted a dress that looked like sunshine and it absolutely was like a ray of light.’

Jessica has pale alabaster skin and a mane of natural flame-red hair. ‘As a child I had freckles and people called me carrot top and made fun of me a little. But then as I got older it was all compliments; people would say, “Your hair is beautiful.”

‘In the US, it’s cool to be a redhead. But I had some Brit friends I was working with in Thailand and they kept calling me “ginger” and one guy was a redhead and he said, “Oh, I get made fun of all the time in England.” I thought they were pulling my leg but I was at the airport waiting to fly home and I heard, “Ginger, ginger!” And there were these British guys, calling me “ginger”. So I hear there’s a stigma in your country, which is bizarre.’

Of course, her red hair has become her stunning unique selling point in Hollywood. So is there a boyfriend to share all this success with? She’s not saying. ‘I don’t talk about my dating life. But I will say this: in this business it’s very tough to maintain a relationship because we’re like gypsies – always on the move. And the more you share your relationship with the world the less special it becomes. So I always try to keep my dating life quiet.’

Jessica lives near the beach in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, with her two rescue dogs, Radley, a
corgi-spaniel cross, and Roman, a chihuahua mix. When she’s not working she loves to cook – she’s a strict vegan – and hang out with her best friend, actress Jess Weixler. ‘Santa Monica is lovely. There’s so much nature around me, which I love. And I’m a 45-minute flight away from my family, so it’s perfect.’

Not that she’s had lots of time to relax and hang out – she’s been busy working with the best in the business. Mike Shannon, her Take Shelter co-star, is a regular in the critically acclaimed TV series Boardwalk Empire and is starring in the new Superman film Man of Steel, as baddie General Zod, which is due to be released in 2013. ‘Mike is the nicest guy, I really can’t say enough good things about him. Take Shelter was a tough shoot for both of us because of the subject matter and because we shot out of sequence. But he made it easy for me. He’s so good.’

She also grabbed the chance of working for Ralph Fiennes, who makes his directorial debut with Coriolanus and also plays the leading role. Jessica plays his wife Virgilia. ‘If you get the chance to see Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave [who plays Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia] do Shakespeare, you don’t turn it down. To be able to say, “I worked with Vanessa Redgrave!” is incredible.’

There are many other actresses Jessica admires, but one in particular has been an idol for years – Isabelle Huppert, the mercurial French star of films such as The Piano Teacher and 8 Women.

‘Oh my gosh, I think she’s divine,’ she gushes. ‘She has this mystery on screen; she’s phenomenal. I’d love to work with her, but she doesn’t do many films in English so I’m really going to have to work on my French.’

The chances are that pretty soon some up-and-coming young actresses are going to be saying similar things about Ms Chastain. The overnight sensation is now centre stage…